Wise Men HeaderMagi, or Wise Men.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

1: Killing off the Magi Myths

Is this how you see the Magi story?
A bright star appeared in the sky. It was seen in the east by three kings. It then moved off and the Kings followed it until it came to Bethlehem At the same time Mary and Joseph arrived at Bethlehem, and after trying a dozen or so inns, (which unfortunately were full up), they ended up in a stable. The star then stopped over the stable were Jesus had just been born. Passing a few joyful shepherds on the way out, the Kings came in and presented gifts to the baby, who was lying in a manger.

Nativity PlayI hope people will not be too offended if I say that the above account of things is at worse erroneous or at best confused. The Bible is still the world's best selling book but I doubt that many people have actually read it and have taken in what it says. Even in today's largely literate society, there are many who still rely on what others say, rather than going to look at the evidence themselves. The above account of the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem owes more to imagination and attempts to fill out the time in Nativity plays, than it does to the Bible!

Let's see what the Bible says. There is only one book in the Bible that specifically mentions the Magi and star in its account of Jesus' birth. That book is Matthew's Gospel, which is the first book of the New Testament. The account starts in the 2nd Chapter beginning at the first verse and going on to the 23rd verse.Now Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, Magi, from the east, arrived in Jerusalem saying; Where is the one born King of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising, and came to worship him. Now hearing this, King Herod was troubled and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him. Having assembled all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired from them where the Christ was to be born. They told him; In Bethlehem of Judea, for it has been written through the prophet; 'And you Bethlehem in the land of Judah, among the rulers of Judah, are not at all the least. For out of you will come forth a ruler of Judah who will shepherd my people - Israel. ' Then Herod, secretly calling the Magi, inquired carefully from them the time of the appearing star. Sending them to Bethlehem he said: Go and question carefully concerning the child, and when you find him report to me so that I also may come and worship him. So hearing the king they went. Behold! The star that they had seen at its rising in the east went before them until coming, it stood over where the child was. Seeing the star they rejoiced with an exceeding great joy. Coming into the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother. Falling down they worshipped him and opening their treasures they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned by a dream not to return to Herod, they departed by another way to their own country. (My own English version)

Notice several points of interest. Nowhere does it mention 'Kings'. Neither does it say how many there were. There is no indication of where they came from, their racial characteristics, their names or their mode of transport. Notice also that they did not follow a star to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. They saw the star before their journey; they saw it again just as they approached Bethlehem. The only guiding it did was as they approached Bethlehem. You will also see that there is no mention of a stable or any indication that Jesus was a new born baby when the Magi arrived.
With a lack of information for plays and stories, people have embellished it. Devotional exercises also require far more information than is actually available. Occasionally thses are in keeping with the facts; mostly they are in contradiction to them. If you want to look at this subject from a factual point of view you will have to go through the possibly painful process of killing off the myths. (or at least seeing them for what they are)

The Mythical Names and Origins.
Various names have been given to the Magi. Hormizdah, Yazdegerd and Perozdh are mentioned in one account. In another, they have the names, Hor, Basanater and Karsudan. The Western tradition names them Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. These names were first used by Origen (d. 254) and become popular from the 6th Century. In a mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, dating from AD 550, Balthasar is middle aged with a black beard, Gaspar is old and has a white beard and Melchior is young and beardless. By the 9th Century the tradition was firmly established that they represent 3 races. Balthasar was Asian, Gaspar a white European and Melchior was African and therefore black. However the dipiction of each often varies from painting to painting and from tale to tale. The ages of each are often interposed and even the races are occasionally interchanged.
They did not popularly become 'Kings' until the 10th Century when painters started to depict them as such. However the 'Kings' idea flourished in various parts of the world as early as AD 250 - Tertullian in Africa certainly called them such.

Art and Devotion
The Roman Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany claims to have parts of the Magi's bodies preserved as holy relics. Various meanings of the gifts have been postulated, although these have never been officially recognised. Camels and ships are also mentioned in the Old Testament which find themselves in various stories. Other later stories have the Magi being baptised and being effective evangelists.
I have no wish to belittle the use of these claims as points of devotion, but they add little to the quest for the factual Magi.

The number of the Magi, (not mentioned in the Bible), has also been the subject of Christian imagination. A 2nd century drawing in the Roman catacombs at Domitilla, Rome, depicts four Wise Men, two on either side, presenting their gifts to Mary and the child. Another catacomb drawing shows only two Magi. In some medieval art there are twelve Wise Men. However, it has to be said that most often three Wise Men are shown, one for each gift. .

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